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A Changing Nueva York

May 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

One of the more dramatic findings of the 2000 census was the extent to which immigration has arrested, and in many cases reversed, population decline in America's major cities. New York is no exception. Without the arrival of a million foreigners in the 1990's, the city's population would have declined in the last decade, instead of surpassing the eight million mark. Forty percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born, the most since 1910, and they are responsible for revitalizing many of the city's neighborhoods.

Latin Americans and Asians accounted for much of the inflow. These recent arrivals, hailing from a growing number of countries, contributed not only to the city's diversity, but also to the diversity of their own ethnic communities. Puerto Ricans and Chinese are no longer overwhelming majorities within the Hispanic and Asian populations, as immigrants from places like Mexico, Colombia, India and Korea have increasingly made their way to the city.

The demographic shift is especially pronounced among Hispanics, the largest minority group in the city, numbering 2.1 million people and accounting for 27 percent of the population. This is the largest Hispanic community of any American city, and an increasingly diverse one. Puerto Ricans, who in 1990 were a majority, are now 36 percent of the total. Their raw numbers actually declined by 12 percent in the 1990's, as retirees returned to Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, immigration from Latin America soared – the number of Mexicans in the city tripled, to become the third-largest Latino group, behind Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

Though statistics are useful in defining existing population patterns, the reasons behind the various demographic shifts in the last decade are hard to quantify. Immigration has long been a mysteriously informal and deeply personal saga, and so it remains today. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans came to New York in the 1990's, for example, because they heard, typically from a neighbor or a cousin back in the old country, that there were opportunities to be had here. A few adventurous immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Puebla came two decades ago, did well and started the flow.

To this day, more than half the city's Mexican population is believed to come from Puebla, and there are small towns in the depressed, indigenous Mixteca region of that state whose economies are fed almost entirely by dollars being sent home from New York. More recent immigrants come from the central states of Michoacan and Jalisco, and Mexico City, too, and many of them have settled in Westchester County.

As in the Asian community, the increasing diversity of the city's Hispanic population should help challenge dated notions. One is that minorities are monoliths. There is a strong cultural and linguistic bond between Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, to be sure, but New Yorkers must now stop thinking of "Hispanic" and "Puerto Rican" as interchangeable terms.

This, in turn, requires city and state agencies to make it a higher priority to address the pressing social problems affecting immigrants, such as strained school systems and the abusive treatment of undocumented workers by employers. The Puerto Rican political establishment, for its part, is beginning to adjust to the changing reality. Citizenship is one obvious gulf that has traditionally separated Puerto Ricans from many other Hispanic groups in New York. But in taking a greater interest in immigration and other issues affecting the broader Hispanic population, Puerto Rican politicians have an opportunity to help forge a pan- Latino political identity, and to capitalize on it.

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